The English Patient (1996)

November 14, 1996

Our history is such a hard thing to reconcile. We carry around our own brand of luggage, a lifetime of baggage that we individually try to rid ourselves. And like a chrysalis finally shedding itself of its shell, when we find the means to purge ourselves of the weight of hopeless nostalgia, it’s a beautiful thing. When we are encumbered with the weight of a futile wistful love, though, freedom is a much harder won battle. How do you live with your own history?

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s brilliantly sublime novel, asked just this of its protagonists, and with its gorgeous prose, saturated images, and unforgettable characters, seemed a natural candidate for cinematic revision. Director Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply) has taken it on himself to bring The English Patient to the big screen, and in doing so has created a credible offspring of Ondaatje’s novel - gorgeous imagery intact (courtesy of cinematographer John Seale).

Inherently a love story, The English Patient follows the intertwined lives and loves of five people; Hana (Juliette Binoche), a beautiful French-Canadian nurse stationed in Tuscany; Count Lazlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), an explorer of the Sahara desert; Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), thief, diplomat, and spy with a mysterious affliction of the hands; Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of an aviator who falls in love with Almasy; and Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh lieutenant with the British army who defuses bombs. Tying them together is a mysterious ‘English patient’, whose identity and history binds the five characters lives together like the strands of a rope.

As a rope, the numerous plotlines and conflicts weave and intertwine through the film. Characters meet, fall in love, separate, and reunite years later, and throughout it all, a copy of The English Patient’s book Herodotus provides the doorway to memory. Minghella has done an admirable job of translating Ondaatje’s convoluted language and story into a cohesive script, and while there are some unfortunate omissions (such as the dilution of Caravaggio from a strong, main character to more of a supporting role), the spirit and themes of the novel remain whole.

“The heart is an organ of fire.”

The English Patient is inherently a lovestory, buttressed by history, and as such it shares more in common with epics like Spartacus and Casablanca than such Harlequin romance tripe like House of the Spirits. It’s a razor’s edge between heartfelt sincerity and schmaltzy cheese that the romantic drama genre walks, and while many fall victim to melodrama, The English Patient manages to communicate some deepset melancholy, melodrama. and anger without overwhelming the audience with cheese.

Still, The English Patient is a four-hanky film - and while the ending will leave even the most apathetic person reaching for a tissue, the characters have been so well developed you can’t help feeling empathy. The movie allows the viewer to give themselves up to the film without guilt - a rare quality for any film in these days of Moonlight and Valentino.

Us romantic softies (for aren’t we all, deep down?), have really taken an ego-bashing at the movies as of late. Cinematically, romance has turned into a degraded parody of itself, with ‘romantic’ characters spouting lines about “planets of shame”, and films lurching towards the inevitability of those three damn words. Kind of makes you feel the fool for being romantic, right? The English Patient is not one of those films; it’s a movie that we can go to and luxuriate in a heartspun opulence without shame.

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